Vanessa Hudgens: I always wanted to be the indie girl playing a drug addict or stripper

The actor who got her break in High School Musical reflects on dogs, Disney, disappointments and branching out as a bohemian as she nears 30

Annette Funicello

Vanessa Hudgens has a black belt in celebrity jujitsu, the ability to protect her privacy while appearing open and chilled. Shes Instagrams favourite virtual BFF, who welcomes you into her life of shoe shopping, fashion and friendship with such relish that you dont notice the camo netting shes draped around the bits she deserves to keep hidden. Its a masterful defensive skill, although it means shes forever asked about what shes wearing and rarely what she thinks. After our interview, she made headlines by becoming the second celebrity since the Weinstein scandal broke to wear Marchesa (Weinsteins ex-wifes label) on the red carpet. When she has been asked to speak her mind, shes usually reacting to what someone else thinks about her: say, Disney when her nude photos surfaced, or Disney again when she did Harmony Korines outrageous beach romp Spring Breakers.

I really take pride in being positive, says Hudgens. Shes here to talk about her new movie, Dog Days her first film in three years which is an easy excuse to coo about her rescue dog, Darla, saved from an abusive home by her boyfriends late mother, and a dog-swarmed set she calls, extremely zen-ed out. Whenever you get to talk about dogs, your day is A-OK, says Hudgens. But its also time to talk about her or, more importantly, to listen to an actor who is finally starting to feel comfortable speaking her mind.

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Whenever you get to talk about dogs, your day is A-OK: Vanessa Hudgens and Jon Bass in Dog Days. Photograph: Jacob Yakob/LD Entertainment

Finding your own voice as a person, let alone a woman, can be terrifying, says Hudgens. Finding her career was easier. Hudgens started acting at age four when she was cast as the Virgin Mary in a school play. Her parents, a firefighter and an office worker born in the Philippines, moved the family up and down the US west coast, but musical theatre gave Hudgens stability. She belted out big numbers in productions of The King and I, Carousel, and The Music Man, and people started to ask her if she wanted to perform as a career. I had that moment: Oh, I guess that is a choice. At 16, she sang a Robbie Williams song at an audition for a TV movie called High School Musical, and won the lead. When it debuted to the biggest ratings in Disney history, Hudgens became a teen sensation during the worst era to be a young female star. The tabloids were chewing up beautiful girls: Tara Reids nip slip; Britney Spearss shaved head; Lindsay Lohans DUI; Paris Hiltons arrest. Hudgens, with those hacked photos, was fresh meat.

And yet she managed to survive in plain sight. She put on a smile and a bikini and surfed the cultural storms, guarding her personal life so cautiously that unauthorised biographies were forced to fill pages prattling about how shed been born in Salinas, California, the buckle of the US agricultural belt. Gushed one: Next time you order a salad in a restaurant, chances are it started in the same place as Vanessa!.

Better that than feeding the tabloids. For a long time, such a prominent thing was girls not supporting each other, backstabbing each other, trying to tear each other down, says Hudgens. Instead, she talked about her friendship with High School Musical co-star Ashley Tisdale in every interview. One of the positive side-effects of the #MeToo movement and the burning spotlight on the need for more female directors, writers and roles, is that those girls have become a community of grown women. Hudgens was forged in one Hollywood, and can now run free in another. The conversation has changed so much, she says. Were being heard in a way we havent been heard in a long time and people gravitate towards that. Its a very special time to be a woman.

I feel like I am just at the beginning, even though Ive been doing this for the past 25 years which is crazy, she says. This December, Hudgens will turn 30, and in the buildup to that benchmark, shes releasing three films in five months: Netflixs The Princess Switch; the Working Girl revamp Second Act, starring Jennifer Lopez; and, first, Dog Days, in which Hudgens plays a barista named Tara who discovers a chihuahua behind a dumpster and winds up tangled in a love triangle with a hunky vet (Michael Cassidy) and an awkward pet rescue owner (Jon Bass). She was always on time, says Hudgens of her canine co-star, which is a lot more than you can say for some actors. Dog Days, directed by Ken Marino, is a cutesy ensemble comedy that squeezes out coos, tears and indulgent groans. Yes, it includes a cover of Who Let the Dogs Out?. For balance, it also quotes Gertrude Stein: I am I because my little dog knows me.

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Stein wrote that koan in a Vanity Fair essay where she grappled with her own success. Hudgens can relate. I woke up at 27 and I was like, I have no idea who I am and what Im doing, she says. Which is funny because at 25, I was like, Ive got life covered! Were good! Smooth sailing! At 25, shed just unleashed Spring Breakers, which she saw as a corrective to her Disney image. High School Musical was a fantastic journey, but it completely derailed me from where I originally saw my career going, says Hudgens. I always wanted to be the indie girl; I always wanted to be in the movies where Im playing a drug addict or a stripper or a prostitute. That was my goal since I was like, 11.

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Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine in Spring Breakers (2012). Photograph: Allstar/Muse Productions/Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

During her Mouseketeer days, Hudgens had to say no to jobs that would tinge her teen dream brand. Afterwards, she said no to jobs that would have cemented her as the millennial Annette Funicello. She did play a drug addict (Gimme Shelter) and a stripper (Sucker Punch) but I got very comfortable with saying no, she says. It became my comfort zone.

In the three years she said no to Hollywood, Hudgens embraced theatre and TV, sometimes both at once, as when she awed audiences by singing Rizzo on Grease: Live one day after her father died. She performed Gigi on Broadway and Lin-Manuel Mirandas In the Heights at the Lincoln Center. Hes just the musical genius of this generation, she says. She guest-judged So You Think You Can Dance, tried to launch the DC comics TV spin-off Powerless, and even played Joan of Arc on an episode of Drunk History where the teen saint flings the F-bomb. My mom would always tell me: Honey, you gotta play Joan of Arc! Its a good character, so beautiful and strong! says Hudgens. I was like, Well its probably not your ideal version of Joan of Arc, Mom, but its a step in that direction.

Finally, Hudgens channels her feelings about Hollywood on to a vision board she makes at the start of every new year. I said my main thing this year is to say yes and see what happens, she says. She said yes to throwing her star power behind the current resurgence of romantic comedies; then yes to getting a place in New York where she filmed Second Act (It just kind of elevated me everyone in New York is a hustler); and yes to being open about her Christian faith. You could slice through Hudgens velvet armour and find her optimism goes all the way to the core. Sure, shes still going to be asked about her clothes, like when she stressed to Ellen Degeneres that her Coachella wardrobe wasnt outrageous but bohemian. But to her, that distinction goes deeper than the superficial.

Bohemian means, to me, to roll with the punches. I always say that expectation is the motherlode of all disappointment, says Hudgens. Yes, its important to set goals and high hopes for yourself, but at the end of the day, you dont know what life is going to hand you, youve just got to roll with it. Thats bohemian.

Dog Days is released in cinemas today.

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